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Why Democrats Around the Country Should Be Focused on California

In some important ways, the state is a microcosm of many of the divisions we see across the U.S.
Gavin Newsom delivers a speech in 2013.

Gavin Newsom delivers a speech in 2013.

With control of the House of Representatives up for grabs, and as many as six Republican Congressional seats in the state deemed competitive, California will once again be in the national political spotlight next fall.

But the most important race in the state, and the one with the most significant consequences nationally, is the race that doesn't hold any direct influence over Washington at all—and may not even involve a Republican come November.

The 2018 gubernatorial race in the nation's bluest and most populous state will be an important touchstone for a Democratic Party still struggling nationally to find an economic message. The race will challenge candidates to articulate campaign themes that will resonate with different factions of a divided party, as well as independent voters.

As Democrats in Washington struggle to sell their "Better Deal" economic agenda, issues of growing inequality and eroding economic opportunity continue to dominate California's political discourse, including the gubernatorial contest.

The two leading gubernatorial candidates—Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (both Democrats)—have made economics the focal point of their campaigns. Their ability to articulate and sell a policy message to the Democratic base, and to the independent voters necessary to win statewide, could provide a blueprint for Democrats across the country.

Newsom and Villaraigosa could also test whether the Better Deal's populist posturing might move some more moderate Republican voters. Under California's election laws, the June "jungle primary" will be open to candidates and voters of all political parties. Instead of the top Republican facing off against the top Democrat in the fall, California sends the top two finishers regardless of party to the November run-off. That means two Democrats could advance to the fall campaign, as we saw in last year's United States Senate race.

Newsom is the pick among voters with household incomes of $100,000 or more. Villaraigosa's strongest support comes from Latinos and those earning less than $40,000 per year.

Will the results in California really shape the national debate? At first glance, the politics of the state couldn't be more different from the national trends. In D.C., Republicans control all three branches of government. In California, Democrats hold every statewide office and enjoy two-thirds majorities in both legislative houses. While Washington moves toward curbing environmental rules and rights of immigrants, California is moving toward 100 percent renewable energy and providing free legal representation to those targeted for deportation.

But in some important ways, the state is a microcosm of many of the divisions that we see across the country. The economy is driven by affluent coastal communities, which are enjoying a sustained economic boom. Unemployment in these parts of the state is at record lows, and wages and compensation at record highs.

But move away from the coast, and you see an entirely different California, with the rise of low-wage work making it harder to meet the rising prices for housing, transportation, and childcare. Poverty and employment numbers in these communities lag far behind the rest of the state.

This economic and ethnic divide has become the centerpiece of Villaraigosa's gubernatorial campaign. In a speech in Sacramento earlier this year he spoke of Two Californias—"one largely white and wealthy, the other largely Latino and poor."

Newsom, who leads all candidates in early polling, has also hit the economic message hard. During a campaign stop in Riverside, he warned that California should heed the lessons of the last national election, and do more to help struggling families to keep pace with the continuing economic transformation. Noting that voters in half of California's counties went "overwhelmingly" for Donald Trump, Newsom warned, "that should be a wake-up call for every damn Democrat. We haven't been taking care of our rural communities."

Like any race, this one is sure to be about more than just policy. There is some personal rivalry between the camps. The two have essentially swapped senior advisers—Newsom's political team ran Villaraigosa's successful campaigns for L.A. mayor, while Villaraigosa's consultant ran Newsom's two San Francisco mayoral races.

It is also a classically California rivalry of north versus south, with former mayors of the state's two cultural capitals jockeying for the state's top office. That rivalry has been a prominent one since statehood, but has taken on new meaning amid the state's rapidly changing economic and demographic reality.

In many ways, the split between north and south mirrors the "Two Californias" that Villaraigosa talks about. The nine counties of Northern California's Bay Area have been the heart of the state's technology boom, while the sprawling suburbs of Southern California have seen growing poverty and still show signs of hardship in the wake of the Great Recession of a decade ago.

Antonio Villaraigosa speaks in San Francisco, California, on June 6th, 2017.

Antonio Villaraigosa speaks in San Francisco, California, on June 6th, 2017.

Newsom now lives in Marin County, which enjoys the highest median family income in California. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has a poverty rate of nearly 26 percent, and has more people living in poverty—about one million—than San Francisco has total residents, according to statistics from the Public Policy Institute of California.

In the Bay Area, Latinos are the third-largest ethnic group, behind both non-Hispanic Whites and Asians. The five counties in the L.A. Basin, meanwhile, together are home to more than half of the state's Latino population, and a strong plurality of residents are Latino.

While both Democrats are talking about economic divisions in the state, early polling shows a sharp class and ethnic divide among their supporters. Newsom is the pick among voters with household incomes of $100,000 or more. Villaraigosa's strongest support comes from Latinos and those earning less than $40,000 per year.

While starting from different positions, the challenge for Villaraigosa and Newsom is similar: Finding the economic message that appeals to base voters, and being able to reach those from different economic, regional, and ethnic backgrounds.

There are others in the race, including Democratic State Treasurer John Chiang and Republicans John Cox and David Hadley, who could still make an impression on the race. But as the race begins to take shape, the ability of two Democrats from very different backgrounds and voter bases to talk about pocketbook issues could be a good test case for a party looking for a way to wrestle the mantle of economic populism away from Donald Trump.